Opinion: We must innovate to reach minorities

Research last month by the BBC on the cost of trans­lating public sector comms turned into a debate about whether it would be better instead to spend the money on English lessons for newly arrived immigrants.

But a legitimate question about how public service providers communicate with their cust­omers should not be used as yet another stick with which to beat people who come to live and work in this country.

Public bodies will always have a duty to ensure that services are accessible to everyone who is eligible to receive them. This is not something that can just be opted out from on the basis of whether we think people have made the necess­ary effort to learn English and integrate. No amount of language tuition can help replace our firm obligation to provide services that are access­­­ible to all.

Providing service information in different lan­guages, or via face-to-face interpretation, is har­dly innovative and may be, as the CRE’s Tre­vor Phillips says, simply a feature of global­isation that ‘we should just soak up’.

However, the requirement to provide value for money does mean we should look more closely at how different communities are supported. The provision of translated material or interpreters should not just be seen as a convenient tick in the box marked ‘equalities’. How much effort is being made to identify changing needs and find new ways to communicate with people – not just ethnic minorities, but also those with learning difficulties or mental health problems?

There is a danger of some communities becom­ing isolated because we take the traditional options without properly considering people’s needs and what will work.

Last week saw the accession to the European Union of Romania and Bulgaria,  and inevitable media coverage of the arrival of immigrant workers from those countries. Most are not here as ‘benefit tourists’ but will be found doing important jobs, including many that our own citizens appear to spurn. They are contri­bu­ting to the economy, most will wish to learn Eng­lish and, when they need to use our public serv­ices, we should be helping them – and all others – to do so.

Lorraine Langham  is co-founder and managing director of Verve Communications. She is a former assistant executive director at Hackney Council

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